How did our ancestors celebrate Christmas?
With Christmas fast approaching (you may even be reading this after all the festivities are over), have you ever wondered how our ancestors celebrated Christmas? We all have festive traditions we enjoy at Christmas such as a roast turkey with all the trimmings, carols at church on Christmas Eve and a Christmas tree with fairy lights but how long have these traditions been around?
For our medieval ancestors, Christmas was an important religious festival. During the 12 days of Christmas, churches and other buildings were decorated with evergreens including rosemary, holly and ivy. Christmas boxes were distributed to servants and the poor whilst large amounts of brawn, roast beef, “plum pottage”, minced pies (made from meat) and ale were consumed. People celebrated by dancing, singing, playing games and performing stage plays. This came to an abrupt end during Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth in the 1640s where the drunkenness and revelry associated with Christmas was condemned and Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas in 1647, replacing it with a day of fasting. Under Charles II Christmas festivities were restored but traditions remained largely unchanged until the Victorian period.
Christmas trees had been popular in Germany for centuries but it was only following Queen Victoria’s marriage to her German husband Prince Albert in 1840 that some of the German traditions were introduced here. An engraving of the Royal Family celebrating Christmas at Windsor Castle in front of a decorated Christmas tree was published in 1848 and the idea quickly caught on although initially they only tended to be displayed in public buildings. From the 1860s the Bucks Herald reported that some local schools had Christmas trees with small presents as a treat for the children whilst trees were also provided by benefactors to the hospital and workhouse in Aylesbury.
Christmas cards are replaced to some extent now by electronic messages but they were first introduced in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole, a civil servant who helped set up the new Post Office and thought it would be a good way for ordinary people to use the service. They gradually became popular, especially from the 1870s when the cost of sending Christmas cards by post was reduced. Most people now have turkey on Christmas day but again they only became popular in the Victorian period, replacing the previous favourite of roast beef. Market traders in the local towns sold turkey from the 1860s whilst the local Aylesbury duck was obviously popular too.
Historically celebrations were centred around the church but by the later Victorian period other events such as Boxing Day hunts, brass band parades and pantomimes regularly took place. Christmas festivities now seem to start much earlier but originally workers only had Christmas Day off. Over time employers also gave their servants small gifts and the day off on Boxing Day, traditionally known as such as money collected for the poor in alms boxes would be opened on the day following Christmas Day. Some employers, notably the Rothschilds who in the later 1800s owned seven country houses and various estates in the Vale of Aylesbury treated their employees and local villagers to an annual Christmas party with food and entertainment – well received at a time when many people had little spare money to spend at Christmas.
Times may have changed since then but many of the traditions we enjoy today have their roots in the Victorian period if not earlier. Merry Christmas!